Architecture and structural engineering disciplines in North America are emerging from a decades old stagnation that is giving way to more integrated intelligence afforded by a multidisciplinary design approach aware of the interdependence of disciplines and systems. schlaich bergermann partner's (sbp) presence in North America and contribution to the coeducation of engineers and architects has much to do with the acceleration a rapidly cresting demand for integrated and compelling design solutions in and for the built environment.
The history of architecture and engineering varies regionally with respect to society’s perspective on innovation – whether it is pursued, seen as gratuitous or reserved only for purposed, instrumental use: going to the moon, maintaining military advantage, or creating new products and with them, new markets. During the latter decades of the 20th century, architecture and structural engineering in the United States – while robust – were largely driven by pragmatics and a construction industry characterized by an obsession with standardization and commercialized parts. In a risk adverse society, the poison of doubt – lack of motivation over fear to be first and do something significant prevailed. Architects’ imagination waned. Historicism and thin references to the past outpaced investments into creating a more compelling future. Engineering and architectural firms alike were dumbed down in the scope of what they would entertain in their imaginations no less their practice. But that is changing in no small part as a result of Europe’s leadership in its commitment to quality of life and experience alongside, if not over the business model. In addition, on-time production, reduced inventories of ready-made products, digital technologies for the design, fabrication and delivery of custom components together with an imagination liberated by intelligence grounded in first principles over assembly logics has opened up new and profoundly transformative territories for practice. Spurred by Apple (Steve Jobs) and a maturing cultural appreciation for design and quality of life – e.g. the slow food and sustainability movements – the U.S. has been obliged to recognize that in all things it does not lead. At what expense is global economic leadership without a quality of life to complement it? A more forward looking, holistic and integrated accounting of the built environment is emerging.
This awakening – manifest in urban planning, architecture and structural design – though not yet pervasive in the U.S. – has reached its shores to great extent through the importation of imagination, expertise and technology from engineering design professionals such as schlaich bergermann partner, whose extensive commitment to and experience in this domain is in part the result of operating under greater design expectations and according to an alternative, more collaborative, model in education and practice. Though never closed to European influence, U.S. clientele had little taste for progressive contemporary projects – nor was the industry tooled to deliver them. With changing times, and borrowing upon their more seasoned intelligences and ambitious agenda, European practices have been an important kick-starter for a new standard of care and design ambition in North America.
In 2005, aware of emerging opportunities in the world’s largest economy opening to a greater design ambition sbp, ready with the requisite skills, expertise and an accomplished portfolio expanded their practice to North America. For ten years they have not wavered from their vision to provide innovative specialty structural engineering – leaving more standard work to others. As the engineers’ engineer, sbp in New York has led both on significant engineering driven projects demanding a new standard of imagination, ambition and care, and contributed substantially to a variety of innovative architectural projects. They have demonstrated a confidence to imagine and build, extended the spectrum of possibility, enabled their architectural collaborators and ultimately are setting a new standard.
The contracts for the design of bridges and stadia roofs of sbp in New York resulted in innovative structures exemplified by North America’s longest spanning footbridge for the Boy Scouts of America and in Vancouver, their design for a pneumatically retractable ETFE roof covering BC Place. The Consol Wingtip Bridge in West Virginia is not merely a highly refined engineering solution. Its expressive form characterized by suspension cables draped over “V” shaped masts complements the valley while providing alternate footpaths. In addition to a main deck hung from the suspension cables, walking paths on top of them provide the more adventurous an experience of the bridge and valley from multiple perspectives.
Equally iconic is the crown of masts silhouetting Vancouver’s skyline at BC place. In a counterintuitive move sbp designed a lightweight deployable stadium roof for extremely heavy snow loads and long spans. Through an innovative system of radially retractable pneumatic PTFE pillows riding on cables spanning between an outer compression ring an a central hub, the deployed roof provides both cover and high quality daylight. During fair weather playing conditions it deflates and retracts. Following sbp’s long pedigree of innovative bridge and long span roof projects that are based on first principles, integrated thinking, research and innovation – seeking the right solution over the standard response – both projects demonstrate technical genius balanced with a highly refined attention to experience and overall aesthetic.
The design of compelling, high-performance buildings demands an integrated approach to design that does not utilize one discipline to prop up the work of another. sbp’s collaborations with U.S. architects have also resulted in several highly integrated and elegant solutions, particularly in relation to glass facades. Of particular note is the design of New York’s Time Warner Center entry façade with Jamie Carpenter and architect SOM. In a post 9/11 jujitsu-like move, sbp’s response to addressing blast-resistance flipped standard logic from resistance (using muscle) to resilience (using intelligence). Their design of an inherently flexible 26 m x 45 m two-way glass cable-net system, designed to flex a remarkable two meters to absorb the design blast load, substituted for what might otherwise have produced a concrete bunker at a prime Columbus Circle address. The resulting unencumbered pre-stressed cable net façade not only achieves the technical and restrictive code requirements, but also is lighter, thinner and more transparent than even a standard glass or structural glazed system.
The story of sublimely thin transparent facades that double as resilient solutions to risk adverse codes does not end with Columbus Circle or WTC1. At Hudson Yards in New York, sbp, in collaboration with James Carpenter and KPF, will soon unveil the first ever cable net façade featuring curved glass panels. Their readiness to work with materials and systems in new ways extends a long legacy of innovation associated with the structurally integrated design of complex three dimensional forms, as demonstrated at New York’s Fulton Center Transit Hub where, together with Grimshaw and Partners, sbp created a hyperbolic-like cable-net supporting perforated aluminum reflectors, showing that the form of cable nets are not limited to planar surfaces.
In addition to pulling the Architecture and Engineering professions along by example – offering the imagination, expertise and ability to realize standard-raising projects in the North American context, New York sbp Director Michael Stein also recognized the importance of pushing the professions by contributing to the education of engineers and architects who will enter practices with a more ambitious outlook, broader awareness, more integrative perspective, and more highly tuned three-dimensional design skills.
The education of architects and engineers in North America has long been held apart in separate departments with typically very limited interaction between them. Architecture students are exposed to history and precedents and taught to imagine and create in design studios. They learn to employ three-dimensional analog and computational tools, though often free from constraints – even gravity. ‘Design’ is celebrated above, and in large part independent of the means to support it. Structures, environmental and building systems, and codes are typically taught separately as support (servant, secondary) disciplines. Engineering students are taught to isolate, analyze and solve component problems in two dimensions extruded into the third. Structural and building engineering education, long divorced from design responsibility in the architectural sense – has co-opted the term ‘design’ in relation to solving problems that are, like in the scientific method, isolated and unencumbered. Though Professor David Billington long advocated the “Art of Structural Engineering” from his post at Princeton, engineers, particularly in the Americas, came to bear the reputation of pocket protected problem solvers designing to codes from tables and ‘cookbooks’. Engineering faculty and departments focused on fundamental over applied research largely divorced from practice and design while architecture schools have tended to self-identify into those that are overtly pragmatic and those that are overtly conceptual.
In addition to providing the expertise and willingness to imagine and realize ambitious innovative building engineering projects in the North American market, Stein understood that influencing cultural change also required a generational approach that starts in School – with the kinds of exposures, experiences and a cultivation of attitudes, ambitions and ideals about the nature and scope of a more progressive structural engineering profession. In 2010 he accepted an invitation to become the Bedford Visiting Professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute – to lead an integrated, multi-disciplinary and co-educational Architecture and Engineering initiative designed to change professional A/E culture into a more integrated and collaborative one. Dedicating one day a week Professor Stein taught an A/E seminar consisting of an equal number of architecture and engineering students. He also co-taught a multidisciplinary studio joining upper level engineering and architecture students on comprehensive building design projects. In addition he organized annual 10-day international workshops exposing six engineering and six architecture students to best engineering and architecture practices and projects in China, Germany, Australia, Spain and France – designed to open students minds to progressive architectural and engineering possibilities, instill modes of working in three-dimensions, from first principles and to develop the confidence to imagine and build.
In seminar he exposed students to exemplary architectural and engineering precedents - towers, bridges, roofs and shell structures - revealing the fundamental driving principles of integration. Balancing lectures that drew upon his vast experience with student case studies and a multidisciplinary design project, the seminar provided most students a first exposure to a different discipline, a critique of the inherent and unfortunate divide and how it can be bridged.
In the studio he operated both as teacher and coach. With an emphasis on sketching, first principles and by cultivating a haptic understanding of stiffness and where the load wants to go Stein taught engineering students to understand structural systems three dimensionally while imbuing within them an ability to work collaboratively. He coached them to ascertain the nature of the problem and design intent, conceptualize possible solutions and to give architects options. He encouraged them to enable, if not surprise their architectural collaborators with possibilities that enhanced and improved upon architectural concepts.
Like his first two educational initiatives the annual traveling workshops are also multidisciplinary and coeducational. Organized in world cities around concentrations of innovative contemporary projects that rely upon significant collaboration between architects and engineers, the intensive workshops focus on exposure to best practices. Featuring in-office seminars set up to curate an understanding of the potential latent in a productive interface between Architects and Engineers as exemplified in progressive projects and on-site discussions, students learn of ambitious design intentions, driving and limiting forces, and receive advice from those accomplished in this domain. They analyze buildings together first-hand, determine whether the architect, engineer or neither dominated; and experience the effects. As a means of making the conversation part of a simultaneous active pursuit, Professor Stein also structured the workshops around a pavilion design project assigned to multidisciplinary teams of engineering and architecture students.
His method of exposing students to exemplary projects, integrative thinkers and progressive designers – both architectural and engineering – changes perspectives and approaches. Teaching a more integrative way of thinking transforms students, faculty, departments of engineering and architecture and ultimately professional aspirations. Geared toward work focused on quality of life alongside purposefulness and functionality – Professor Stein teaches what he and sbp demonstrate in their work: the confidence to imagine new solutions from first principles, reintroducing delight into both the process and the outcome. They are pioneers and providers of new possibilities – enablers of adaptive systems that are lighter, thinner and more beautiful – the architecture of which resides in the solution, not on top of it. SBP realizes seemingly impossible thin glass shells, integrated load carrying forms, curved bridges, adaptive stadia roofs and structures that leverage three dimensional systems over two dimensional extrusions – the biological over the mechanical approach to the way things work and the efficiencies and beauty found therein.
In late 20th century North American practice, structural engineers were brought to design projects late in the process – to provide behind the scene, hidden technology to prop up an architectural concept, in most cases without significant challenge to achieve anything difficult or novel. It became a matter of sizing, selecting and specifying – not ‘designing’ in the broader sense. Atrophy of will and ambition set in, requiring disruptive change to create new standards, develop greater abilities and design confidence. schlaich bergermann partner are playing a significant role in catalyzing that change, by demonstration in practice and teaching in the classroom. Bringing a fresh set of attitudes, aspirations and capacities they have provided the expertise, set new standards that others (engineering and architecture firms) will rise to, and are contributing to the development of a next generation of capable and creative engineering designers.
- Mark Mistur -